The Bay Program’s top priority — cleaning the Chesapeake — is not the top priority of most local watershed groups in the region.

While more than half of the groups in a recent survey said cleaning and restoring the Bay was important, the survey found that the top local concern was protecting drinking water. The Bay ranked eighth.

Still, the first-ever survey of watershed organizations in the Chesapeake basin found that the Bay Program and local watershed groups share many goals, such as restoring rivers and streams, improving habitat for fish and wildlife and conserving open spaces.

The survey was conducted by the Bay Program’s Community Watershed Task Force, formed to help the Bay Program — which consists mainly of federal and state agencies — to better work with local groups to reach Bay Program goals. The results will help the task force make recommendations.

The Bay Program in 1997 launched a “Community Watershed Initiative” which recognized that many activities, from watershed planning to engaging the public in stream restoration, “will only happen if there is active involvement of the community at the subwatershed scale.”

The task force was formed in response to the initiative, and the survey was its first attempt to estimate the activities, and needs, of watershed organizations.

No one knows exactly how many local groups are in the Bay watershed. But 84 groups responded to the survey, which was distributed in both the Bay Journal and direct mailings, with a nearly equal number of responses coming from Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. One group responded from New York, another from the District of Columbia.

The survey found that local groups are active in many areas that can influence Bay Program goals. For example, 62 organizations said they participate in public meetings and hearings, 60 produce fact sheets or brochures, 60 produce a newsletter, 56 organize field trips, 55 conduct water quality monitoring, 54 conduct tree plantings and 50 organize or participate in stream or beach cleanups.

But the groups also had many needs. Of those, funding topped the list. Groups said they also need technical assistance and guidance, especially for such activities as planning and organizational development.

In response to the survey, the task force is working to establish an internet-based clearinghouse to provide information for watershed groups, and will begin a mentoring program among Bay Program partners and watershed organizations.

In a report on the survey results, the task force is also recommending that the Bay Program shift away from a Bay-focused message and instead emphasize river and stream conservation when working with watershed groups, which are usually more focused on local issues.

It also recommends that the Bay Program make resources available to groups working on common issues, and to better promote issues of common interest with groups.

On issues such as drinking water, where the Bay Program is not actively involved, the task force recommends that the Bay Program be able to refer groups to agencies that can help them, while promoting, when possible, related activities where the Bay Program is more active.